Another financial effect of the pandemic: international students’ only employment options

By Sukainah Abid-Kons, contributor

As a lesser-publicized consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic, many colleges and universities stopped paying for certain on-campus work-study jobs when classes shifted online in March. For many of these students, the checks that were supposed to come until May abruptly ended two months early, creating a cash crunch for those students — and uncertainty about regaining those work-study positions in the fall.

Some international students rely on institutional work-study programs for income, especially because they are not eligible to apply for federal loans or other aid and aren’t allowed to work other off-campus jobs because of visa conditions. 

Mariana Martinez, a peacebuilding major at EMU who is originally from Honduras, has felt the effects of this change over the last four months. 

“My last check was in mid-March,” said Martinez, who lived on campus for the rest of the semester. 

Once it ended, however, she was left without an apartment or a job. 

“I don’t know how I’m going to make ends meet starting next month,” Martinez said. “The university canceled the work-study program  for the  summer too, so there’s no opportunity for employment for the summer, and I still have to pay rent.” 

EMU’s campus quad is quiet after the pandemic moved classes online. (File photo by Tristan Lorei)

The coronavirus pandemic has presented economic hardship and uncertainty to tens of millions of Americans. Since cases started growing in March, more than 40 million Americans have filed for unemployment benefits, including college students. 

Colleges and universities offer students two different types of work-study options. About 3,400 colleges and universities participate in the federal work-study program, employing thousands of students based on financial need. Institutional work study jobs around campus, such as serving as student assistants or in library service jobs, are competitive and based on how much money the schools have available. 

However, because most colleges and universities transitioned to remote learning throughout March and early April, many schools suffered sharp revenue losses. That forced wide and sometimes deep cutbacks as a result of refunds for housing and meal plans that students had already paid, as well as canceled sports seasons. 

Compounding problems for international students such as Martinez, certain visa statuses limit employment outside the university.  

Most international students either have F-1 or M-1 visas, both of which limit the type of off-campus work that they can do, as it must fit into one of the three following categories: Curricular Practical Training, Optical Practical Training, or STEM Practical Training. 

In addition, M-1 students can seek off-campus employment only after they have completed their studies, according to US Citizenship and Immigration Services

“In terms of securing some form of employment, that’s totally out of the question now,” she said. “International students can’t be employed, even dog-walking and babysitting are deemed illegal.” 

Michele Hensley, director of financial aid at EMU, said EMU could pay federal work-study students through federal funding, but institutional work-study students were often left without a paycheck. 

“We did have a handful of students involved in outreach students who were able to work,” Hensley said. But the rest were left unemployed for the rest of the semester. 

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, JMU’s quad is eerily empty in the week students were supposed to return from Spring Break in March. (File photo by Holly Marcus)

James Madison University also continued paying federal work-study students through the rest of 2020, but couldn’t guarantee remote work or pay for international students who were institutional employees, said Amber Shifflett, the student employment manager at JMU. 

“Our international students were able to be institutional employees, but there was no help given to them. If they could work remotely, they could receive pay but were not compensated for ‘hours not worked,’” Shifflett said. 

Shifflett also said while the university left the employment of institutional work-study students up to the individual departments they worked for, she had not heard of any department that offered remote work to their institutional students. 

JMU also received $12 million from the CARES Act — the federal stimulus measure Congress passed in the spring to mitigate economic losses of cities, educational institutions and companies. And $6 million of that is specifically to help students who qualified for Title IV aid. 

Those who qualified were “students who need financial aid and who had a passport,” Shifflett said. 

Because of this, international students were not offered this aid because of their citizenship status. 

For most schools, the ever-changing COVID-19 situation creates uncertainty for the fall semester. Even if campuses open at the start of the semester, many schools are telling students and faculty to be prepared in case classes move online again, which would again impact both institutional and federal work-study students. 

“Senior leadership has told us the goal is to be open for the fall semester,” Shifflett said of JMU’s plans. But she said she hopes the school will continue to help work-study students if classes shift online. 

“I would hope that our department would be able to continue with remote work for students who can work remotely,” she said.

For Mariana Martinez, the EMU student, that is something she’s thought about as well. But she said she’s optimistic. 

“I’m kind of just holding onto hope that things will just start to turn around,” she said.  

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